27 July 2017 -

Feature: DresserFest - Christopher Dresser, Japonism and the Victorian World of Goods

The weekend of 30 June-2 July 2017 saw Middlesbrough host the second edition of the bi-annual 'Dresserfest', a family-friendly and action packed celebration of the Victorian industrial designer Christopher Dresser (1834-1904). A joint venture between the Christopher Dresser Society, Teesside University, and the Dorman Museum, as well as scholars, dealers, collectors and all types of Dresser aficionados, the programme incorporated activities like talks, tours, a selling exhibition of Dresser's work, family workshops and an academic symposium.

This year's theme was centred on the current exhibition on show at the Dorman, 'Tokyo to the Tees: Middlesbrough and Japan, 1877-1939'. This show coincides with the 140th anniversary of Dresser's seminal visit to Japan in 1877 and explores this through the influence of Japanese decoration on the wares of Linthorpe Art Pottery, Dresser's Middlesbrough-based venture into ceramic art. But with a much richer story to tell this only acts as a launch pad from which the exhibition investigates and celebrates Middlesbrough's many other links with Japanese art, culture and commerce.

However with Dresser being the main focus of the symposium, of course, the day's theme had a slightly broader remit and focussed on 'Christopher Dresser, Japonism and the Victorian World of Goods'. The programme showed a promising range of speakers; international and working across the fields of academia, museums and the trade.

Paul Denison and Gill Moore open the conference.

The first paper to be presented was the keynote by Widar Halen. Halen is well known as a vanguard of Dresser studies, and his book Christopher Dresser: A Pioneer of Modern Design (1993) is still a go-to text for anyone trying to comprehend the breadth and diversity of his output. Fittingly, his paper 'Christopher Dresser and the Anglo-Japanese Style' was a perfect piece of scene setting for the rest of the day's presentations. Halen connected the rise of Japonism to Dresser's life and career succinctly. Beginning with his time as a student and then a teacher at the Government School of Design in the 1850s and 60s, we heard how Dresser was at the forefront of the critical study and appreciation of Japanese ornament before it became popular in teaching collections and the large International Exhibitions of the time.

This subsequently filtered through to Dresser's commercial enterprises and Halen illustrated this with wonderfully diverse examples, such as Minton painted ceramics, Elkington metalwork and Watcombe terracotta. The culmination was, of course, Dresser's trip to Japan in 1877, and his fastidious study of the culture that would ultimately produce his book Japan: Its Architecture, Art and Art-Manufactures. Dresser's particular ambition was to understand the Japanese crafting of ceramics, visiting almost 70 separate potteries and – something I didn't know – taking over 1000 photographs, which are now all lost. Finally, and critical to this symposium's context, Halen recounted how this lifelong love and fascination with the culture of Japan informed Dresser's work at Linthorpe Art Pottery – so much so that purportedly early pieces of Linthorpe bought by Japanese people have found their way back to Britain as Japanese wares!

By now the audience were fully geared up to explore further the subtle differences in the way that Japanese culture infused British art-making at the time. We were not disappointed, as the next paper, delivered by Zoë Hendon, Head of Collections at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA), gave an alternative aspect to Japonism at the very end of the nineteenth-century. Entitled 'Handwork rendered expeditious: The Rottman-Silver stencil venture of the 1890s', Hendon's paper used a case study of the businessman Alexander Rottman and designer Arthur Silver's collaboration in making and selling stencilled wall coverings to investigate the reception of Japanese design after its initial spike in popularity had subsided. The focal point of this examination was a superb collection of MoDA's katagami – Japanese stencils – which Silver had acquired in the 1880s and 90s to use as reference works for his own practice. Hendon argued persuasively that by this time – a generation after Dresser – Japanese arts and crafts were associated as much with ideas of the handmade and careful labour as with any aesthetic tropes.

Presentation slide showing katagami from Zoë Hendon’s paper 'Handwork rendered expeditious: The Rottman-Silver stencil venture of the 1890s'.

After lunch the symposium recommenced with an astonishingly detailed paper by Jane McQuitty, a PhD student at Alberta College of Art and Design, about Dresser's family connections, with a particular focus on three of his sons who emigrated to the USA. McQuitty used her base in North America to access previously untapped sources in Dresser studies and began unveiling a compelling history: that of Dresser at home, with light being shed on his domestic wealth and his role as a father and an educator. This is something that is often overlooked when investigating Dresser the designer, but McQuitty made us realise that it is incredibly important to not focus simply on his art and writing, but add to the corpus of knowledge on Dresser in all areas. I look forward to seeing what how this project unfolds over the next few years.

Following on from McQuitty we heard from Clive Manison, a collector and expert on English glass. His paper on Stevens and Williams glass, and their patenting of a Japanese-inspired design called 'Matsu-no-kee' in the 1880s included in-depth investigation of the origins of this particular design – tracing it back to Japanese woodblock prints of pine trees – and the process of it appearing in the archives of registered designs. Manison showed the connoisseurial eye in describing subsequent misattributions of Matsu-no-kee designs, and how one has to resist amalgamating this very specific pattern into other Japanese influenced designs of the same period. All of this research was wonderfully demonstrated by pieces from Manison's own collection, which he very generously allowed the audience to handle and examine more closely after his presentation.

Massimiliano Papini, a PhD student at Northumbria University, presented the penultimate paper on his current research project entitled 'Transcultural Exchanges between the North East of England and Japan, 1862-1923: Visual and material culture in relation to Anglo-Japanese interaction'. Papini introduced us to the salient themes of his investigation, including a thorough examination of Japanese objects sold at local auctions in the North East area, as well as the main collectors of Japanese art and artefacts, all underpinned by the burgeoning links in trade and politics between Middlesbrough and Japan.

The final paper was presented by Paul Denison. His presentation 'Conventional Wisdom: Christopher Dresser, Owen Jones and the Mystery of Goodall Playing Cards' had been born in many evenings spent searching eBay. Denison explained how Owen Jones had executed over 173 known designs for the reverse of playing cards. As a booming industry in the mid- to late-nineteenth-century, it seemed entirely plausible that Dresser was engaged in similar commercial activity. This argument was further enhanced by some of Denison's own collection of historic playing cards making their way round the room, which, by everyone's admission, had very Dresser-esque designs on the reverse. Though no conclusive evidence was presented, this engaging paper provoked incredibly valuable discussion on the grounds for attribution of new Dresser designs; the bias we as Dresser enthusiasts have in making these decisions; and the need to be objective and rigorous in every aspect of research if the field of Dresser studies is to be enlivened and progressive.

Owen Jones card backs, 1851-1875. Courtesy Dr Ken Lodge and The World of Playing Cards.

It was perfectly apt to end the day with these important questions lingering on the mind as we all left thinking of the next gathering in a few years and what new discoveries might be made. It is only left to say a huge thank you to all involved in the organisation of such a brilliant and stimulating conference.

Simon Spier
DHS Ambassador


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